From Condoms to Cancer: Students Raise Funds

Fundraising at Harvard has grown up since bake sales and car washes.

Student groups raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Although most groups raise money to cover their expenses and activities, at least four student organizations see fundraising as an end in itself. Charities range from a Cambridge dance program to AIDS and events range from skating shows to formal balls to lectures.

Even before knowing which charity they wanted to raise money for, four Eliot House students this January decided they wanted to fundraise for a worthy cause.

They created a committee called Persephone and held their first benefit for the New York-based Cooley's Anemia Foundation, says co-chairman Irfan Ali '89. Ali says Persephone chose to raise money for the foundation because it felt its contributions could have an effect on the charity's small budget.

Students who attended the party say that its atmosphere differed from that of other benefit dances, as it was a small semi-formal selective party held at the Hasty Pudding Club.

Organizers agree that the March party was different from a private party. Decorations provided by the charity--banners and balloons as well as posters of children in treatment for the disease, with needles in their abdomens--were visible throughout the room, Ali says. Invitations included information about the disease, which affects about 3000 children in America. Slightly high ticket prices, four and six dollars, reflected the donation to charity, the sophomore adds.

Persephone, whose membership includes students from Boston area colleges, is the only organization of its kind in New England, says Pennie Decas, fundraising coordinator for the Boston branch of Cooley's Anemia Foundation.

Ali says Persephone may charge more money for future parties to raise more for the foundation. Persephone will expand the guest list while preserving the intimacy of the first party, says Ali. The first party did better than break even but did not raise as much money as organizers hoped, he says. "We're not raising money for ourselves, we want to keep charity in the foreground," says Ali.

Judith R. Barish '88, a member of the AIDS Benefit Committee (ABC) says she is skeptical about Persephone's approach after the first party. "There are good ways to raise money and bad ways to raise money. It's a shame they have to pollute it with elitism," Barish says.

"They can't pretend that it is primarily a charitable organization. It is basically a social organization that happens to give its money to charity," she says. She describes the dance as "simply donating money and hanging our with a lot of other rich people."

Ali says such a reaction is unjustified. "We never had anyone's financial status in mind [in making the guest list]," he says. "If we wanted to do something for rich people, why would we emphasize the cause? It wasn't coming out party. It's not an exclusive, closed organization. We're there to raise money and provide a service to students at Harvard and the Boston area."

Barish contrasted the Persephone dance with an ABC benefit dance held earlier this winter, at which organizers distributed condoms and pamphlets about AIDS. Like the week-long Festival of Life last year, the event was meant to be educational, as well as raise money, ABC President George E. Hicks '87-'88 says.

"People were sort of laughing [about the condoms] but I don't mind because they were paying attention to the information," he says.

ABC is also planning to sponsor a lecture on "Safer Sex" by television sex-therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer on April 22. "She's clearly a media figure," says Hicks. He said the ABC invited Westheimer "as much because she's very entertaining as educational.

And most student fundraisers say they too must consider the fundraising potential of events as well as their informational or cultural value.

In the past 17 years, the Jimmy Fund's annual Evening of Champions has gone from being pure entertainment to one of the more lucrative fundraising events on campus. Originally designed to amuse children with cancer at the Children's Hospital, this year it raised $100,000 for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute by attracting top amateur skaters such as Brian Boitano and Tiffany Chin, says Paul Kienzle '87, co-chairman of the 1986 Evening of Champions.

"A lot of us get caught up in making more money or in the quality of the show, but the primary reason is helping kids with cancer," Kienzle says. Kienzle, who helps coordinate the efforts of 300 Eliot House students the weekend of the November show, compares his job to running a company.

Fundraising is a serious job for Celia M. Savitz '89, co-director of Citystep, which must raise $20,000 a year for the troupe's operation. "I don't consider myself a fundraiser. But I believe in the organization and because I am inherently involved in it, I know that we need the money," she says.

The annual semi-formal ball at the Charles Hotel only raises a quarter of the budget. Citystep must pay the hotel "a few thousand dollars" for the room and the proceeds from alcohol sales, says Savitz. They must also pay the hotel for drinks if $500 worth has not been purchased.

"They [Citystep members] have a lot of faith [in the organization], so it sometimes gets hard when people don't recognize that through their wallets. This is water off their backs, but our lifeblood," says Savitz.

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